The agriculture sector in Pakistan has been faltering since more than two years now and a failure to timely address this most important economic sector of the economy can have far reaching implications. These will not only affect just the farmers and their families but also the country’s exports (around 80 percent of the country’s total exports are concentrated in agricultural commodities and agro-based products), industrial growth and, above all, food security and poverty alleviation. So, given that nearly 69 percent of the total cropped area of the country is in Punjab, producing over 80 percent of cotton, wheat and fine rice, besides 63 percent of sugarcane, the convening of the Punjab Agriculture Conference 2016 a few weeks back was a very welcome step indeed. While the conference made some serious efforts to ensure collective and simultaneous participation of all five departments involved – agriculture, livestock, forest, irrigation and food – one feels it failed to properly address some key concerns relating to larger and lower tier malaise affecting the small or average farmer. In this context it will be interesting to study two examples from across the border on how the Indian government in its recent agriculture policy cum farmer package announcements has tried to address challenges to the small Indian farmers, which ironically happen to be quite similar to the ones being faced today by the Pakistani farmers.

One of the major recent concerns in Pakistan has been the poor cotton crop of 2015-16, where not only the size was wiped off by nearly one third, but also that the quality of the cotton itself suffered immeasurably. Most experts and analyst are tracing this problem directly back to the low quality – expired in certain cases – seed issuance to the farmers and in the process pressing for criminal investigation of the matter, since it is tantamount to playing with the food security of the nation. The problem with the ‘seed-supply’ on the Indian side has been slightly different; more to do with pricing than quality where the US (United States) multinational Monsanto allegedly made unethically high profits at the cost of the Indian farmer – And the Indian administration too may have been corruptibly complicit! Genetically Modified (GM) cotton with seeds made with Monsanto technology has been commercially available in India since 2002 and has helped transform the country from a net importer into the world’s largest producer. Nine-tenths of India’s total cotton acreage is planted with Monsanto seed.

Monsanto, through its local joint venture, licenses its technology to local producers that make seed and sell them to farmers. It receives an astronomical royalty fee for each packet sold: A 450 gram packet of Bt cotton seeds sells for up to 1,000 Indian rupees, or about $15, and in-turn delivers a 163 rupee royalty (16.30%). With farmer’s margins already constrained, the Indian government has recently announced to regulate and closely control both price and royalty. Under the new rules, effective from this month, it will cap the price per packet at 800 rupees and the royalty at 49 rupees. India insists Monsanto is welcome to leave if it does not want to abide by the new rules and any further exploitation by Monsanto can see its license being cancelled in the same way as was done with some international pharmaceutical companies thought to be charging unrealistic prices to the Indian patients.

From what was evident from the Punjab Agriculture Conference we also, like what India did 15 years ago, want to embark on GM/multinational seed development path. Nothing wrong with it, but it will be prudent to learn from the Indian experience when negotiating long-term agreements with Monsanto or any other such company. Global commodity prices have taken a dramatic fall since 2002 and margins that were workable then are no longer affordable today. Therefore, it will be important that in our efforts to lift production and quality we do not commit to prices and royalties that render our farmers regionally uncompetitive or vis-à-vis the Indian farmers.

The second example is about how the Indian government recently woke up to two stark realities in its agriculture policy undertakings where it initially felt it had some very good measures in place relating to crop cover and employment safety, only to find out that ‘good’, yes, but in the wrong priority order. First, cotton farming, where the government seemed at a loss that despite its efforts to introduce high-yielding varieties of cotton and its support in promoting horticulture farming, the Indian farmer suicide rates remain one of the highest in the world, especially amongst the cotton farmers where in fact the suicides’ momentum is growing. As we know, both horticulture and cotton farming are the success stories of Indian agriculture: production of fruits and vegetables in India today surpasses its food-grains production by more than 30 million tones; and in cotton, its introduction of high-yielding varieties of cotton seed in recent years has dramatically increased the yield per hectare (ha) to almost two and a half times. Rising from 190kg per ha in 2000-01 to 491kg per ha in 2011-12. A temptation the farmers couldn’t resist and naturally cultivation areas under cotton and horticulture witnessed an increase of over 40% in the corresponding period. However, with this shift the risks increased as well – mainly the increased risk of managing the shift away from the traditional two-crop cycle. And the new research and recent surveys have now made it clear to the Indian leadership that this is precisely where its policies were failing and hence the high suicide rate.

To give the credit where it is due, the Indian government displayed maturity and has now altered its facilitation mix to farmer. It now instead diverts a significant chunk of its subsidy in providing a new type of crop insurance scheme (Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana), which mitigates crop risks for the farmer while the tab is mainly picked up by the government. In essence, it reduces the premium payable by the farmer to: 1.5% on rabi crops, 2% on kharif crops and 5% on commercial/horticultural crops, and in addition it frees commercial and horticulture crops from risk assessment on actuarial basis, which previously used to push up the premium to as high as 25% in certain cases. Further, direct transfer instruments like mobile phones and bank accounts are being used for paying compensation (when due) by the government to avoid transaction-deductions and unnecessary claim processing delays by the insurance companies. We also need to introduce similar schemes here. However, one did not witness any meaningful discussions on this subject in the recently held PAC. One can only hope that our authorities also wake up to this need of the farmers and learn from the Indian experience.